Dwight Howard is the key to the Lakers making the playoffs.
Sure, it's Kobe Bryant's team and his turn-back-the-clock season has steered the ship, but all the Lakers' hopes for glory rests on Howard's broad shoulders.
You know what you're getting from Bryant every night. The same can be said for Steve Nash and Pau Gasol (since we know his role on this team will be diminished no matter his health status). Only Howard has the ability to bump the Lakers up a notch by ratcheting up his game to Superman level.
Until Bryant and Gasol return to 100 percent, the onus is on Howard even more now to carry the team for this crucial stretch.
For the time being, the Lakers still control their own playoff destiny. Here are five things Howard must do to ensure they secure a postseason berth.
It sounds simple, but it's imperative.
And as of late, Dwight Howard has looked more lively on the court. It totally changes a game when he's active and engaged. Howard can literally control the action.
Earlier in the season, Howard's effort level was lacking. Granted, he was playing through injuries (and still is) that slowed him down, but you could tell by his negative body language that on some nights he was just going through the motions.
One of the biggest reasons the Lakers have turned their season around is because Howard has committed himself to the cause. It especially shows up on the defensive end, where the Lakers have improved in defensive efficiency each month since December.
Dwight Howard has struggled with hanging on to the ball this season, posting the third-highest turnover rate of his career.
A big reason why Howard has been ineffective as a post-up threat this year is that he turns the ball over more often than he draws shooting fouls in the post, according to MySynergySports.
Synergy's numbers also show that Howard turns it over an astronomical 20.5 percent of the time on plays categorized as transition opportunities. Being in transition implies having an advantage over the defense. That's the absolute worst time to cough up the ball.
It's really stuck out how often Howard has gotten stripped this season, either while making a move on the block or going up for a shot or even after snaring an offensive board (Got to keep the ball high, Dwight!).
Live-ball turnovers like that have hurt the Lakers and have resulted in them allowing the second-most fast break points in the league.
Everyone wants to be the guy who dominates the ball and scores at will, but that rare ability resides only among the elite scorers of the NBA.
For everyone else, it's about maximizing your ability and playing to your strengths.
For a long time, Howard was his team's alpha dog and therefore assumed responsibility for getting one-on-one buckets. That mindset has carried over to his term with the Lakers, but it hasn't worked out too well.
Going back to his post-up numbers from Synergy, we see how inefficient Howard has been at converting down on the block. In addition to giving the ball away frequently, he shoots just 42 percent on post-ups and ranks 120th among all players in points per possession on that play.
The biggest problem is that even though Howard is clearly ineffective as a post-up player, those possessions make up 44.2 percent of his offensive plays, by far his most frequent play type.
In contrast, Howard only finishes 12.4 percent of his offensive possessions as the roll man in a pick-and-roll. In that scenario, though, Howard shoots 79 percent from the field and draws a shooting foul more than a quarter of the time, per Synergy.
Those two frequencies need to flip immediately.
Howard has to stick to what he does best, working as a finisher and letting two world class playmakers in Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant set him up for easy baskets.
Dwight Howard's biggest responsibility is protecting the paint for the Lakers. And there's no one better than him at doing just that.
It's not just the fact that Howard ranks fifth in swats per contest. It's also all the shots around the rim that he alters; and going even beyond that, all the shots that come from further away from the hoop because of his mere presence.
With Howard on the court, only 31.5 percent of opponents' shots come in the restricted area, per NBA.com. When Howard sits, that figure jumps to 37.7 percent, an increase of nearly 20 percent.
Overall, the Lakers allow 101 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor and 108.2 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the bench. That's roughly the difference between the Miami Heat's ninth-ranked defense and the Sacramento Kings' 29th-ranked defense.
Nothing is more frustrating than watching potential layups and dunks turn into missed free throws.
That's what happens often when Dwight Howard touches the ball in the paint. Teams would much rather send Howard to the line than give up a shot near the rim.
In fact some teams go as far as intentionally fouling Howard—like the Orlando Magic did in Howard’s recent homecoming—and not even allowing the Lakers to use a possession.
Against Orlando, Howard stepped up and knocked down 25 of his record-tying 39 foul shots (64.1 percent), including hitting 23 of his last 30, but if you thought that was a turning point, I'm afraid it wasn't. Howard seemed to correct for his sudden burst of competence at the stripe by shooting 10-for-24 (41.2 percent) over his next three games.
Welcome to the Dwight Howard Free-Throw Roller Coaster.
Howard must make teams pay for sending him to the line repeatedly. Just getting back to his old benchmark of 59 percent foul shooting would be a tremendous boost for the Lakers.